Rescheduled Open House at the Hopewell Observatory: Saturday, June 24, 2017


, , , ,

We had to reschedule the public open house and star party from May to June 2017 because of bad weather last month. You are all invited, and it’s free. The directions and many other details can be found at a previous post on this blog

(Just ignore the date, because it’s no longer 2016! The directions are long, and I didn’t feel like copying and pasting them here.)

Looking at a planetarium app set for 6/24/2017, I see that Jupiter and Saturn will be well-placed for viewing at sunset, and the entire Summer Milky Way will be overhead, allowing you to look at lots of deep-sky objects like globular clusters, planetary and gaseous nebulae, open clusters, as well as distant galaxies. If you stick around until 4 AM, extremely bright Venus will rise in the east. The Moon will be too close to the Sun to be visible.

Caveat: we do not have running water, so no modern lavatory. We do have bottled water, an outhouse, electricity, and hand sanitizer. This place is really in the middle of the woods, which is where lots of insects and other arthropods live, so keep that in mind. We do have some bug juice you can use, but keep any spray far away from the telescopes!

If you have a telescope of your own, or binoculars, feel free to bring them. A flashlght or headlamp will be useful. We prefer red light at night, since white light makes you night-blind for about 10-20 minutes. If your flashlight(s) put(s) out white light, we have red plastic, tape, scissors, and rubber bands that you can use to shield your light.

Two Simultaneous ‘First Lights’ at the NCA-CCCC Telescope Making Workshop


Oscar Olmedo and Jeff Dunn both took the opportunity of a clear night last night to achieve first light with the telescopes that they have been working so hard on. The target was Jupiter. The location is right outside the Chevy Chase Community Center, and time was just about 10:00 pm. The fact that you can see so much in this iphone image shows that light pollution is a real problem there.


We also managed to do a star test using an artificial star on Oscar’s 6″ f/3. I made the testing rig with considerable help from Alan Tarica and Bill Rohrer. We reflected the light off of a known optical flat so as to double the testing distance. We had everybody in attendance at the telescope=making workshop examine the inside- and outside-of-focus images, and we all agreed that using the images in Richard Suiter’s book, it’s a bit overcorrected, probably somewhere near 1/4 wave of green light, which was what we were using — a green laser pointer attenuated and stopped down to about 100 micron hole. But good enough.

Next step for Oscar is to aluminize his mirror in our vacuum chamber.

Congratulations to both gentlemen!

Religions based on … well … myths, or alternative facts. Or lies.


, , , , , , , , ,

Every single religion that I can think of seems to be based on totally unreliable witnesses and stories that are mis-remembered (at best) or deliberately distorted.

Judaism just celebrated one of its most important rituals, the Passover seder, in which I have participated about six times. If you’ve forgotten, the story is supposedly recorded in the Old Testament (or Tanakh) and the event celebrates the freeing of a large group of Hebrew people from Egypt. They then wandered the Sinai desert (a very, very hot and dry place – I lived next to it for about 9 months).

The problem is, there is absolutely nothing in the historical record that corroborates any of this story. The Egyptians kept a lot of records, and much of it is still readable — no mention of any such tribe fleeing, no first-borns murdered, no special heavenly plagues, yadda, yadda. No archaeological evidence whatsoever of any tribe of Hebrews wandering in the Sinai desert for any such expedition.

(Stuff like that gets preserved there! In fact, at the famous fort and palace known as Masada, near the Dead Sea, you can clearly see the streets and walls of the camp built by the legions of the Roman Army that besieged and eventually captured the fort, from roughly 2000 years ago! Now THAT incident and war is definitely mentioned — in Josephus, among other places…)

That story of Abraham getting ready to slit his son’s throat and god providing a lamb instead? Really? Inscribed tablets from Mount Sinai – really? How do we know any of this? We don’t. And in any case, if God tells you to commit genocide (it’s spelled out in Genesis / BeReshit), is that a wonderful thing? I don’t think so.

If we get to Jesus, well, again, the evidence that he produced any miracles or was somehow resurrected and became one with God (or didn’t) is pretty darned thin. Today is supposedly the day that he got crucified (the Romans were NOT nice people!!!), which was a shame. The Romans killed and tortured and enslaved a LOT of people. I’m not so sure that they should be held in such high esteem…

But I can think of many ways that a body can be taken out of a tomb, and none of them involve miracles or angels. Then, if you read all of the various Gospels, canonical or not, you realize that their outlooks and details are all profoundly at odds with each other.

If you come to Mohammed, I can think of many ways that somebody could appear to be possessed and to recite various lines of poetry (see Mormons, below) — although that would certainly explain why he would have prophecies that justified what he wanted to do (such as marry little girls) or needed to be amended (see Satanic Verses…)

Now both Jesus and Mohammed said some stuff about equality and supporting the poor, nonetheless the leaders of both religions (Popes, Kings, Emperors, Califs and so on) ended up being wealthy beyond anybody’s dreams, while the majority of people lived in pretty base poverty….

If you go back to the founding of Buddhism, what does that mean that someone is ‘enlightened’? How do we know if someone is in fact in that state? Is it even a good thing to attempt to achieve it? It seems to me that it’s more worth while to try to be good to other people (without endangering your own welfare unless absolutely necessary) and to try to leave the entire planet (and solar system) a better place for your descendants — by not driving species to extinction, not raising the global temperature if at all possible, and by helping so many billions of our kin to avoid lives of infernal poverty and oppression.

Hinduism seems to blame the poor and lowest classes for having been wicked people in a past life, and therefore should be not permitted equality with the upper castes. Sounds great if you are a Brahmin, but what an oppressive religion, really! And how can anybody with an ounce of skepticism believe any of those stories?

Going back to 2000+ years ago — All those stories that the Romans, the Greeksm the Babylonians, Persians and Egyptians made up about their gods — are you serious? They actually believed that? Well, you may as well believe in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny or the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Oh, can’t leave out the Mormons. Golden plates buried in upstate New York but only viewable and translatable by someone talking through his hat, writing pseudo-king-James-English and talking about lots of animals and plants and metals that supposedly were used by warring tribes of American Indians — and nobody has ever found figs, wheat, camels, sheep, goats, or horses, or the use of iron or wheeled vehicles of any sort anywhere in the Americas for the entire period of say 500 BC to 1491. So that’s all a lie, too.

Sorry if I offend you, but while I know I’m not perfect (far from it) I don’t need fairy tales to try to be a better human being. I prefer to know things that are true and verifiable. And I really don’t like it when people try to kill each other to support ideas that are really just hoaxes.


How Britain Became an Island


, , , , , , ,

Interesting report with pretty geological maps indicate that the Island we call Britain got cut off from what we know as France and Belgium by a catastrophic waterfall and flood that broke through what we now call the Straits of Dover as the ice that covered Northern Europe was beginning to melt, and sea levels were much lower than today.


Here is the link

By the way, if the weather is fairly clear, it’s easy to see the famous White Cliffs of Dover from the French side (for example, at Cap Gris-Nez).

The Mathematics of George Washington


, , ,

I recently learned some things about how the young George Washington did math, including surveying. Mathematician and historian V. Frederick  Rickey gave a talk 2 nights ago at the Mathematical Association of America here in DC, based on his study of GW’s “cypher books”, and I’d like to share a few things I learned.

(1) The young George appears to have used no trigonometry at all when finding areas of plots of land that he surveyed. Instead, he would ‘plat’ it very carefully, on paper, making an accurate scale drawing with the correct angles and lengths, and then would divide it up into triangles on the paper. To find the areas of those triangles, he would use some sort of a right-angle device, found and drew the altitude, and then multiplied half the base times the height (or altitude). No law of cosines or sines as we teach students today.

(2) He was given formulas for the volumes of spheroids and barrels, apparently without any derivation or justification that they were correct, to hold so many gallons of wine or of beer. (You probably wouldn’t guess that you had to leave extra room for the ‘head’ on the beer.) Rickey has not found the original source for those formulas, but using calculus and the identity pi = 22/7, he showed that they were absolutely correct.

(3) GW was a very early adopter of decimals in America.

(4 ) This last one puzzled me quite a bit. It’s supposed to be a protractor, but it only gives approximations to those angles. The results are within 1 degree, which I guess might be OK for some uses. I used the law of cosines to convince myself that they were almost all a little off. Here’s an accurate diagram, with angle measurements, that I made with Geometer’s Sketchpad.

His method was to lay out on paper a segment 60 units long (OB) and then to construct a sixth-of-a-circle with center B, passing through O and G (in green). Then he drew five more arcs, each with its center at O, going through the poitns marked as 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 units from O. The claim is then that angle ABO would be 10 degrees. It’s not. It’s only 9.56 degrees.

Telescope Fix, Scudding Clouds Over Moon, Tom Turkeys Hiding, and Successful Cloud Chamber!


, , , , , ,

I had a productive 24 hours!

  • Night before last, I think I finally got Sky Wizard Digital Setting Circles installed on the 14″ alt-az telescope we were most generously donated by Alan Bromborsky. (That’s me, in the operations cabin  at Hopewell Observatory, taking a break and a picture, long before completion.)img_6169
  • So I went out to look at the sky at 1 AM. I saw no stars, but the 80% gibbous moon appeared to race dramatically through the clouds
  •  That afternoon, as I was driving out, I saw 5, maybe 6 tom turkeys playing hide-and-seek with me behind the trees. Believe me, they are REALLY GOOD at hiding behind little saplings, logs, and rocks! Or if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who’s tried to hunt them.
  •  Late that evening, I got a dry-ice-and-isopropanol particle detector working for the first time. (I had tried and failed, when I was a teenager, some 50 years ago, and failed several other times since then as well.) If you look at my little video, you can see the particles more easily than I could with your naked eye as I was filming it. Don’t ask me yet which ones are muons, which are alpha particles, and which are beta particles, because I don’t know yet. But you could look it up!

Productive 24 hours!

A Talk at AHSP on Telescope Making


, , , , , ,

Two weeks ago was the Almost Heaven Star Party on the slopes of Spruce Knob, West Virginia, sponsored and organized by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC). The weather was wonderful, and we could see the Milky Way and lots of Messier objects with our naked eyes, every single night for four nights. This is by far the longest stretch of good weather I’ve ever experienced up there at The Mountain Institute.

(Friday and Saturday, it was only clear for a few hours, but Sunday and Monday nights were clear all night, AND there was NO DEW to speak of!! Wow!!)

During the daytime, there were lots of talks and also activities and expeditions such as hiking, spelunking, visiting the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, canoeing, and Phun With Physics and arts & crafts for kids. I particularly enjoyed the talks on Russell Porter (the founder of amateur telescope making in the US and one of the major designers of the 200-inch telescope at Palomar), LIGO (detection of gravity waves), and Rod Molisse’s talk on 50 years of mostly-commercial telescopes as seen in the pages of various astronomy regime.

I was one of the speakers and gave a little talk on telescope-making. If you care to sit through it, you can find it along with all of the other talks (many of which I missed for various reasons) at this web-page.

I brought my home-made 12.5″ Dob-Newt [shown to the left in the picture below] and added about a dozen items to my formal list of Messier objects. (I had already seen all 100+ objects, but hadn’t recorded enough details on them to be able to earn one of the ‘merit badge’ pins from the Astronomical League, so I’m going through the list again


(If you didn’t know: Charles Messier loved hunting comets about 220 years ago, with what we would consider today to be a fairly small (4″ diameter) refractor that he used from downtown Paris, not far from where I lived back in 1959. Comets look like fuzzy patches in the sky, and so do galaxies, star clusters, and illuminated clouds of gas, all of which are MUCH farther away and MUCH larger. Comets are part of our own solar system, and move noticeably from one night to the next against the apparently fixed background of stars. Messier is credited with discovering 13 comets. But when he discovered a fuzzy item in the sky that did NOT move, he would record its location and its appearance, so as to avoid looking at it again. He published and updated this list a few times before he died, 199 years ago. Nowadays, his list of things-to-be-avoided are some of the most amazing and beautiful things you can see in the night sky. I’ve tried imaging a few of them, but am very, very far from being proficient at it. I attach my best one so far, of something called the Dumbbell Nebula. No, it’s not named after me. And thanks to Mike Laugherty for helping with the color balance!)